It all started in China. Yes, you read that right. The origins of my book about Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony has everything to do with China.
In 1988, I was asked to write a few monologues for theater pieces on American History that would be performed in a series of theaters in China. Later, after the scripts were complete, I invited several friends to join me in auditioning for the cast. I had no aspirations to join the cast myself, but my friends, who were all performing artists, certainly did. As for me, I simply thought the audition process would be a lark and I looked forward to spending a fun day with a few friends. And it was fun. And funny. As it turned out, the joke was on me. None of my friends made the final cut for the cast, but I did! As a result, I ended up going to China later that year. But, back to this story.
The historical figures I chose to develop monologues about for the show were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony.
I was working in library acquisitions at USC at the time and was able to take advantage of the seemingly endless collection of books to be found in the Doheny Library Stacks. I dove into my research with gusto, and was excited to learn that my chosen subjects were contemporaries, and that their lives frequently intersected. I found that bit of information fascinating, and wondered just how deeply interconnected they were. In any event, I had no time to satisfy my curiosity, and so I limited my research to the biographical information I needed to know about each in order to write my short monologues. However, I did have occasion to mull over certain questions that occurred to me: I wondered what it would be like if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony had a conversation. What would they talk about? What would it sound like?
After a time, I tucked those questions away and, eventually, forgot all about them.
In the intervening years, I wrote a book about aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African American licensed pilot. This is a biography written in verse, and told from multiple perspectives. While the information about Coleman was factual, the format I created to tell her story was a work of fiction. Talkin’ About Bessie has enjoyed considerable success, winning the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration and an Author Honor for the text.
Not surprisingly, the editor began asking me to consider writing another book about a historical figure. I told him thanks, but no thanks. Every year or so, he’d raise the subject again.
Finally, in 2008, he asked if I would consider writing a book about Harriet Tubman. I laughed, thinking to myself that everyone and his mother has written a book about Harriet Tubman. Why would I write yet another? And so, again, I found myself saying thanks, but no thanks.
Two weeks later, however, the idea I’d had way back in 1988 resurfaced. What about creating a conversation between Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony? That would be a new and unique treatment of Harriet’s story. Would my editor be interested in that idea? The answer, of course, was yes. And so, with that, I got busy.
I began gathering research materials in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the most extensive collection of memorabilia from that period. I spent several days hunched over rare suffragette meeting notes by Susan B. Anthony, slave narratives, and other valuable literature relevant to the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the suffrage movement.
Later, I traveled to Ripley, Ohio, to search out some of the original homes that served as stations of the Underground Railroad, including the John P. Parker House. After a week of research, I headed back to California to begin the long process of poring over thousands of pages of biographies, histories, and other reference work on my subjects, and the historical period against which their stories played out. Bit by bit, the manuscript came together. And now, finally, this story has gone out into the world!
I hope Chasing Freedom brings this time in history alive for my readers, and that they realize we are all part of one another’s story.